The irony of modern technology zapping us all back to the future

In Hindu mythology, there is the story of King Raivata Kakudmi who travels to meet Brahma, the Creator. Kakudmi thinks that this has been a short trip, but when he returns back to Earth, he is shocked to find that 108 yugas have already passed on Earth, each yuga representing about 4 million years. Brahma explains to a perplexed Kakudmi that time runs differently in different planes of existence.

Time seems to be moving forward at an astonishing pace these days, and it is technology, more than any other force, which seems to be driving the world forward at an ever-accelerating pace. The relentless cadence of Moore’s Law doubles computing power every eighteen months, Metcalfe’s law drives social networks like Facebook proportionally to the square of its user base to dominate the planet in a few short years, Carlson’s Curve describes the same exponential growth for DNA sequencing. As technology makes the world hurtle forward, it seems preordained that a modern day Kakudmi, even if he were to be absent for a few short centuries, would be unable to recognize the world today. But, if you look a little closely, technology seems to be taking the world both to the future and to the past simultaneously!

When Pierre Bouchard discovered the Rosetta Stone in Egypt in 1799, the world finally figured out what the ancient Egyptians meant when they engraved pictures on stone. This gave way to alphabets and writing, and then to typewritten text, and then on to text messages. Most kids today, seem to write in pictures again, with Emojis, the hieroglyphics of the tech age. Villages in the ancient world used barter, which gave way to cowrie shells and beads, then to coins and currency. With the EBays and BitTorrents of the world and the whole P2P or peer-to-peer revolution, technology is taking us back to barter. In the not-too-distant past, each region had its own currency, and with barter you actually had your own personal currency, and now with cryptography and blockchain, each bitcoin and cryptocurrency is unique to the individual who owns it. We used to seal documents with a wax mohar or seal, representing our individual fingerprint; technology has brought fingerprints and other biometrics back with a vengeance to our doors, identities and mobile phones.

In the time of the modern Kakudami, everything was bespoke and tailored for the individual, whether it be clothes or weapons. Then came the Spinning Jenny, the assembly line, and mass production creating multitudes of cheap everything for the burgeoning world population. Now, with AI and algorithms and recommendation engines, we are hyper-personalizing everything all over again, as we go back to bespoke, individual and tailored everything. Food was natural and grown locally in your backyard, everyone was a locavore. Then came mass industrialized agriculture, with its gargantuan farms, mechanization and global trade, making the origin of the food you ate unknown and untraceable. Technology, including blockchain,  IoT and aeroponics, is now helping us grow food locally and know where the rest of it comes from, as we go back full tilt to organic, locally grown produce.

Technology seems to be driving the world of work to the past too: we started with single individuals working from their homes and yards, which gave way to organisations and office buildings. With the gig-economy, where you work for yourself combined with the COVID-accelerated Work-from-Home movement, we are going back to where we started as individual workers, working from our own premises. Software-as-a-service, blockchain-based Digital Autonomous Organisations and the Zooms of the world are hyper-enabling this retreat. We seem to be going back to the Future of Work.

Tribal leaders ruled us, perhaps Kakudami was one of them. Then came monarchs, democracy and governments. The social networks of today are driving us back to being tribes again, with tribal leaders elected as our Presidents and Prime Ministers. In fact, there was One God, then many of them, and people started turning away from religion as atheists. Now, technology promises to give us the ultimate AI God, as a new technology-centric religion takes hold.

It is intriguing and difficult to explain – this journey to the future, taking us actually to our past. Brahma tried explaining it to Kakudami; perhaps, it can be explained better by the Eastern and Indian concept of time, where time is not linear with a beginning and an end or a past and a future, but is circular (kaalchakra), thus driving us back to where we started. It is something that perhaps crossed Albert Einstein’s mind in his later years, when he mused on the past, present, and future existing simultaneously to explain his unfathomable Theory of Relativity. Or perhaps it was the American rapper, Snoop Dogg, who understood it best when he intoned that “You’ve got to go back in time, if you want to move forward.”

(This was first published as an OpEd in Mint on Oct 29, 2020)

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